Jones Very was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1813 to a sea captain father and a strong-minded, highly independent, and somewhat atheistic mother. Very sailed with his father for nearly two years, beginning at age nine, but after his father’s untimely death in 1824, Very attended school in Salem for three years, excelling as a scholar, until at age fourteen he left for employment in an auction room. He refused to give up his goal of enrolling at Harvard, however, and continued his self-education through extensive reading, eventually obtaining the help of a special tutor as well as securing employment as an assistant in a Latin school, preparing younger boys for entrance into college. During this time, his earliest, rather imitative poems began appearing in a local newspaper, the Salem Observer.
So advanced was Very in his scholarly ability that he was able to enter Harvard in February, 1834, as a second-term sophomore. His years at Harvard were crucial in Very’s progress as a scholar, poet, and religious thinker. He distinguished himself as a student, eventually graduating second in his class in 1836 with particular expertise in Latin and Greek. He continued to write poetry, including the class songs for his sophomore and senior years, as well as poems imitative of William Wordsworth and William Cullen Bryant.
Most important, however, under the influence of some of his Unitarian teachers and classmates, he began to turn to religion in a serious way for the first time in his life, thus deviating radically from his mother’s skepticism. Particularly in his senior year, he experienced what he called “a change of heart,” becoming convinced “that all we have belongs to God and that we ought to have no will of our own.” During the next two years, while staying on at Harvard as a tutor in Greek and a student at the Divinity School, he gave himself to the struggle of ridding himself of his own will and becoming perfectly conformed to the will of God working within him. His poetry writing more and more partook of this spiritual battle, centering on intense religious feelings and intuitions within the framework of the traditional Shakespearean sonnet form.
Very delivered a lyceum lecture on the subject of epic poetry in Salem in December of 1837. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a prominent Transcendentalist and reformer, attended this lecture and immediately recognized the uncommon promise of Very as a thinker. Knowing nothing of his poetry writing, she immediately set up a connection between Very and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which resulted in Very’s lecturing at Concord in April of 1838. Very also began attending some of the so-called Transcendental Club meetings during the spring and summer of 1838. Emerson was much taken with Very’s depth of thought and his insights into William Shakespeare and encouraged him to continue his writing about poetry, but Emerson, like Peabody, seems to have been unaware of Very’s own poetic productions during these months.
Very’s spiritual journey reached some sort of a high point in the fall of 1838, when he evidently experienced what he thought was the total replacement of his own will by the will of God. This perhaps mystical experience immediately resulted in his proclaiming to students and friends that the end of the world and Christ’s Second Coming were occurring, as...
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